Risk Defining Yourself

John - Louisville, Kentucky
Entered on August 9, 2013
Age Group: 65+
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I believe one should take risks when trying to define themselves. Done well, risk taking leads to awe- the combination of wonder and fear. Oliver Burkeman once asked an audience to think about this: “If someone handed you a piece of paper tomorrow that told you exactly how the rest of your life would unfold in every detail, you would hate it, even if what was on that sheet of paper was all good?”

Early in my life I was attracted to the health professions in that they embodied two of my passions, science and art. However, as I progressed through school I was more drawn to science and discovery. Artistic aspects of the profession are, appropriately, driven by craftsmanship rather than free expression.

I was discovering my passion and life’s work around a time when Watson and Crick had described the structure of DNA. Howard Temin, David Baltimore, and Renato Dulbecco had just received the Nobel Prize for discovering the viral enzyme reverse transcriptase. This was one of the key tools that fostered a molecular upheaval that was about to dramatically alter the life and health sciences. The effect of this new science was volcanic in nature. The lava of new information that emanated from this discovery rapidly changed our understanding of life and disease. However, many of those scientists and health professionals who were my greatly admired teachers did not embrace this new mantra, rapidly becoming raisins in the vineyards of higher education and healthcare.

Seeking a career in science and discovery I needed to identify mentors to guide me. It quickly became apparent that in a rapidly changing and dynamic environment my mentors would have to be small candles providing short bursts of guiding light. I was mindful that if I embraced a “Paschal” approach, I risked being allied with a single individual and could lose personal identity, suffer the boredom of imitation and risk aversion for being negatively judged. This could potentially foster a lack of confidence in oneself, which would surely create a barrier to success.

Clearly, one of the great dangers, especially early in life, is not to take risks. Admittedly, I took a number of risks early in my career that were pedestrian and frivolous. Ultimately, recovery required deep personal self-examination forcing me on more than one occasion to reinvent myself. This provided both motivation and courage for taking greater risks that eventually resulted in significant achievements. Fortunately, I recognized that achievements that were initially large leaps soon became short scientific strides in a rapidly advancing field. Recalling those scientists and health professionals alluded to earlier, I truly believe that had I savored achievements as ends in themselves rather than as springboards for future endeavors I too would have ended up professionally and intellectually frozen in time.

This I believe, taking risks can ultimately help to define a person and lead to significant achievements. For as Winston Churchill was once purported to have said: “Success isn’t final and failure isn’t fatal.”